For a short track, Richmond International Raceway certainly looms large on the schedule. The facility's position at the end of the Sprint Cup Series' unofficial regular season makes it a defining presence in the championship race, and the track's spring event this Saturday night certainly prompts a natural interest over what the scenario might be when NASCAR's top division returns to the Virginia capital city in just over four months.
The revamped Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup format certainly heightens that curiosity, given that the elimination of the Wild Card concept adds a real unknown. The number of remaining playoff spots available for the taking on that Saturday night will be contingent upon how many more drivers win races between now and then -- and if the first third of the regular season has been any indication, that expanded 16-man Chase grid could be quite full before the regular-season finale even sees the green flag.
Considering that we already have seven different race winners -- and reigning series champion Jimmie Johnson, last year's wins leader Matt Kenseth, and current points leader Jeff Gordon are not among them -- it's very easy to envision a scenario in which a large number of drivers are vying for one or two remaining spots. Given that the surest route into the postseason is through Victory Lane, we could very well have a situation where a driver wins to get in, something not witnessed since Jeremy Mayfield did just that to qualify for the inaugural Chase in 2004.
So on the eve of one Richmond race, and roughly one-third of the way to another which will determine the championship field, a stratification is already beginning to take place. There are drivers with race wins. There are drivers -- mainly Johnson, Kenseth, and Gordon -- who show all signs of being on the brink. And then there's a long list of others who are capable of picking off a victory at some point, but are also capable of posting a goose egg over the next 16 events and then being forced to make it happen at Richmond in September.
There have always been top drivers with their backs against the wall entering that cutoff race, and there almost certainly will be again, even with 16 spots now available. Odds are, somebody's going to face a win-to-get-in situation four months from now when the circuit returns to Richmond, and here are the top 10 candidates to be in that position.
10. Tony Stewart
Yes, he's been on it since Bristol, with four top-10s in five races during that span. But those guys at Stewart-Haas can be mercurial -- they'll blow you away one week, and leave you scratching your head the next. Even Kevin Harvick and Kurt Busch, who have race wins for SHR, can be that way. Stewart's too good to be winless for much longer, and his recent effort at Texas bodes well for other intermediate tracks down the line, and in fairness SHR's cars are consistently better than they were a year ago. Still -- with this group, you never know.
9. Greg Biffle
Teammate Carl Edwards may have a victory and be in good Chase shape, but Roush Fenway's senior member is still searching. There have been positive signs the past two race weekends: sixth at Texas, and then pit strategy to manufacture a first top-five at Darlington. There's potential here, but the speed has yet to come around, and race wins haven't exactly been occurring with regularity for the Biff in recent years. Odds are, he'll cash his ticket eventually. But then again, it wouldn't be surprising to see him up against it returning to RIR.
8. Denny Hamlin
The Joe Gibbs Racing stalwart hasn't quite enjoyed the campaign he hoped after winning last season's finale, and then winning the Sprint Unlimited exhibition in Daytona. After finishing second in the Daytona 500, he's only once placed better than 12th. Hamlin's lower in points (15th) than he probably should be given that he missed the Fontana race with vision issues, but he also hasn't led more than 20 laps in a race to date this year. Of course, he's great at Richmond, his hometown track, and his fates could very well turn this week.
7. Ryan Newman
The first-year Richard Childress Racing driver is off to a nice start with his new organization, but his ninth-place points standing may not do him much good if he can't reach Victory Lane. So far no top-fives and just nine laps led for Newman, which means the No. 31 hasn't been at the front very much this season. Still, we know that team will be solid on plate tracks, and Newman appeared on his way to duplicating Mayfield's feat last year until -- unforeseen circumstances, shall we say -- intervened.
Things have been quiet on the No. 3 front ever since Daytona, when the RCR rookie was one of the biggest stories of Speedweeks. Dillon still hasn't led a lap since the opening lap of the 500, although he's strung together mostly solid finishes since then and stands a more than respectable 10th in points. If this were last year's format, he'd be right in the mix for a Wild Card. But it's not, and wins are everything, which makes his quest to crash the Chase that much more difficult. While he may not be best-suited to winning his way in at Richmond, watch out for that No. 3 at the two remaining plate races.
Vickers' return to full-time competition at the Sprint Cup level has been a promising one, with the Michael Waltrip Racing driver having enjoyed a nice stretch since Bristol. But is he a threat to win? Vickers led 30 laps at Darlington thanks to tire strategy, and has paced one other lap all year. He and the No. 55 team have weathered the loss of former crew chief Rodney Childers (now with Harvick at Stewart-Haas) better than many outsiders expected, but it's clear that the MWR cars are still looking for speed.
4. Clint Bowyer
Vickers' MWR teammate Bowyer is in the same boat -- good enough to get into the mix, not yet strong enough to run consistently toward the front and challenge for the race victories now crucial to Chase eligibility. Bowyer has been solid the past three races, but he has yet to record a top-five finish. Any return to Richmond is going to evoke all kinds of memories about what happened there last fall, which would make it the height of irony if it were Bowyer who somehow won his way into the Chase in the same race one year later.
3. Kasey Kahne
Talk about a head-scratcher. Eleventh in points after Bristol, Kahne has endured a miserable past month and has fallen well off the pace set by his brethren at Hendrick Motorsports. The 23 laps he led at Darlington were the most he's led in a race all season, and he still wound up 37th. Still, unlike some others in this group. Kahne has shown in spots that he can run up front, and that's what it takes to win -- whether it's sometime in the next 16 races, or back at Richmond in September with everything on the line.
2. Kyle Larson
Eighth at Darlington, fifth at Texas, second at Fontana -- the kid is turning heads. Larson has already raised the competitive level of Chip Ganassi's No. 42 car, and he's barely into his maiden season. No one is arguing any longer that the move to the Sprint Cup level is too much, too soon. Crashing the Chase, though is something else altogether, and toward that end Larson hasn't led a single lap. While he gave eventual winner Kyle Busch all he could handle in the end at Fontana, winning to get into the postseason is a much bigger step to take.
Seven months ago, he was a two-time Sprint Cup race winner on the verge of making the Chase for a second consecutive season. Now he's the ultimate underdog, struggling to right the ship with a team struggling to take the next step. The magic of the brief Kurt Busch era at Furniture Row Racing hasn't carried over to Truex's tenure, which has been fraught with bad breaks that have him 28th in points. No top-fives, no laps led to date. While that Childress engine gives him hope on plate tracks, if there's one driver to point to as the favorite for must-win at Richmond, it's the guy in the No. 78 car.
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